- Display and UI are hugely improved
- Battery life remains very good
- Great accuracy across the board
- AMOLED won't be for everyone
- Same tracking experience as FR255
- Misses out on ECG hardware
The release of the Forerunner 265 marks a pivotal point in Garmin's AMOLED overhaul.
A design luxury that was once reserved for its Venu smartwatches and more premium sports watches - the Fenix, Epix and Marq - is now present on a powerful running watch at a relatively accessible price point.
On paper, Garmin has delivered a watch without compromises; giving you all the superb training features you'd typically associate with the Forerunner line without being tied to a memory-in-pixel display.
And, as we've found by putting it through the wringer over the past couple of weeks, the idea that the Forerunner 265 strikes the perfect balance between hardcore training and aesthetics largely holds out in real-world use.
It's not without fault, and it's also not a watch that we think will suit every runner or multi-sport athlete, but the Forerunner 265 is the real deal. Let's dig into why.
Price and competition
Never before has there been such a short gap between generations, with this new model arriving only 10 months after the Forerunner 255.
With the key changes being in the design department, too, it means you're essentially paying a $100 / £120 premium for music support and the new AMOLED display.
Check price: Buy Garmin Forerunner 265
We think that's actually a pretty good deal - especially at a time when every brand is hiking prices. And it's a nice touch that Garmin continues to charge the same price for the standard, 46mm variant of the FR265 and the 41mm 'S' edition - not something we see from Apple, for example.
If you're not interested in offline music playback and you're more old-school in your display expectations, though, the $349 / £299 Forerunner 255/255S is still a superb option.
In fact, even if you specifically desire the music features but still don't care about the display enough to jump to the FR265, Garmin has the Forerunner 255/255S Music available for $399 / £349. It means there are plenty of options here in this mid-range pocket - and that's just when you zero in on this specific area of Garmin's Forerunner watches.
If you want to add options from other brands to your wishlist, we have a couple of recommendations.
If you want something that's a more powerful smartwatch and can still hold its own when tracking workouts, and you're an iOS user, the Apple Watch Series 7 or Series 8 are great picks.
And for those who want a more genuine running watch rival, we'd recommend looking at the Coros Pace 2.
Design and display
The most important change between generations is also the most noticeable. Garmin drops the memory-in-pixel (MIP) display here for the more vibrant, crisp and colorful AMOLED - the same that features on the pricier and also-new Forerunner 965, too.
We've been testing it out on the standard 46mm FR265, but we should note that the resolution specs are identical on the 41mm model. And, as we've found with Garmin's other AMOLED watches, it's a huge difference maker.
Whereas a MIP display can often look quite brutalist and feel designed purely for function, the new AMOLED display adds some much-needed jazziness to the experience.
It makes everything feel much more modern and premium - as does the move to a touchscreen display.
It's not just about the new display being prettier, either - the redesigned user interface that Garmin is able to employ here is much smoother and quicker.
It's arguably just as important as the display itself, we think, and it proved quite a jarring experience when we did a side-by-side speed comparison running through menus on a MIP-packing Garmin Forerunner 955 Solar.
We know there are plenty of old-school Garmin fans that lament the company's shift towards AMOLED, and, while we do acknowledge the mild trade-offs in battery life (and get into this more below), we also feel pretty confident that the majority of people seeking a running watch would pick the FR265 over the FR255.
Elsewhere, the design is relatively unchanged, but the FR265 does actually have a couple of other minor aesthetic changes to note.
You still get the same classic five-button array around the case's edge, for example, but Garmin has now made the 'Start/Stop' button at 2 o'clock much bigger. The bezel also has a bit more of a shaped-off look to it, which, again, adds to the more modern feel.
Whether it's in general wear or tracking, it's a design that still works incredibly well. It's lightweight and resilient, and the move to a better display type also means it's even easier to pull off when you're not in your exercise gear.
The core training features you can expect to find on the FR265 are virtually identical to those that we tested on the FR255.
The only notable change, really, is the addition of Training Readiness - Garmin's round figure derived from sleep tracking, recovery time, heart rate variability averages, short-term training load and stress history.
It's a feature that we feel is almost always in tune with how we would interpret our own readiness, but we're also fairly confident that Garmin will add it to the FR255 at some point in 2023, so we wouldn't necessarily tag it as one of the reasons to upgrade.
It's mildly disappointing that Garmin hasn't rolled out any more notable software features to pair with this new generation, but, at the same time, the core makeup is still as good as you'll find on any sports-focused watch.
Let's run through how a couple more of the key ones work.
After debuting on last year's Forerunner models, HRV Status has developed into one of the best ways to understand your acute recovery to training.
And, as we've found from testing over the last year or so, Garmin's data lines up roughly within the same ranges as Whoop and Oura's estimates. For us, that's typically anywhere around 60 - 85ms.
Even if you've been tracking HRV Status on another compatible device, it (kind of annoyingly) still takes a fresh 21 days to develop fully and notify you whether your HRV is balanced or unbalanced, but overnight averages are available until you complete this.
Training Status, Acute Load and Chronic Load
Training Status and the ensuing 'Load' metrics surrounding it are what essentially guide your training, giving you an insight into whether your sessions divide between low aerobic, high aerobic and anaerobic work.
It's our personal favorite, and something Garmin continues to refine, with features like Chronic Load (not on the watch yet, but now available in Garmin Connect) adding more context to the Acute Load metric that gives you an idea of the 7-day strain on your body.
Since HRV Status joined, the 'Status' element of Training Status is now much less reliant on the VO2 Max estimate, too, and actually rewards you for maintaining your fitness level - rather than punishing you for not constantly improving.
Heart rate accuracy
We've taken plenty of very accurate samples from the Garmin Elevate 4.0 optical heart rate monitor over the last couple of years, and, as expected, the one packed inside the FR265 does the job pretty well.
It's not completely without its quirks, though. We still think it takes a bit too long to react to fluctuations in your heart rate (even if this largely works itself out for post-workout graphs and averages), with something like the Apple Watch or Whoop reacting 10-15 seconds quicker than we've found with Elevate 4.0.
In a treadmill interval stress test, shown above, it matches up pretty well with the Whoop on our bicep and the Wahoo Tickr X chest strap. However, it does also show off its tendency to slightly overreport here, with both maximum and average heart rate estimates a few beats above the other trackers. Whoop's session average, not pictured, was 150 BPM.
We don't really class this as enough of a discrepancy to really fault the FR265 - it's just something to keep in mind. It's also much more prevalent in interval workouts and strength training, as opposed to steady recovery sessions in one heart rate zone.
Since moving to its Multi-Band/dual-frequency GPS system, we've been pretty impressed by the level of accuracy Garmin's been able to deliver when reporting distances and routes. And, again, we've found performance incredibly stable in the FR265.
While it's true the antenna was bested in our one-off test at the Chicago Marathon by the Apple Watch Ultra last November, it continues to ace our more routine tests in more open areas like street pavements.
When compared to Xiaomi's dual-band GPS in this test - one that really struggles to pick us out on a wide road or on shaded paths - it leaves us pretty confident that the FR265 is able to assess the distance to bulletproof levels in most terrains.
We are eager to do some additional testing in built-up areas, though, so stay tuned for that.
It's not just about just whether it appears accurate, either. Garmin's relatively new SatIQ feature means it's also very battery efficient. It only needs to turn to Multi-Band and All Systems GPS when it really needs to -say, when you're surrounded by skyscrapers or thick forestland.
This enables you to simply start your workout and rest easy knowing the watch is adapting based on the strength of the signal - and this isn't something that's really available on many devices.
Plus, if you're as much of a data dork as we are, you'll also be pleased to know that Garmin Connect's post-workout location tracking worm is still the best around.
When you zoom in and see that you've been logged so accurately - even when running on the same path multiple times - it's difficult not to have faith in the measurement.
Sleep tracking and health features
The FR265 may be a fitness-tracking powerhouse from which you can log everything from your morning run to an evening mountain bike session, but the more wellbeing-focused features are just as important as GPS and heart rate when it comes to determining the accuracy of Garmin's training features.
We should mention that this isn't the most complete health tracking package available, though. If you're looking for such in a Garmin device, the Venu 2 Plus is still the leader of the pack; being the only device with the necessary design to support ECG readings.
It's semi-surprising that Garmin didn't include it here, but, if it did, we're not really sure there'd be many justifications left for buying a Venu over the FR265.
Garmin also hasn't debuted any other exciting health insights like body temperature here, but there is room for respiratory rate, sleep tracking, resting heart rate readings and blood oxygen saturation estimates.
We won't get too bogged down in things like resting heart rate, given that nearly every manufacturer plucks this figure at different times of the day, but suffice it to say that the FR265 recorded us within our typical range of 48-53 BPM.
SpO2 figures, as well, which we don't necessarily put a great amount of stock into, did always show us in the 95% and above range - as did the Whoop and Oura we tested the FR265 against.
The real surprise out of all this is that the sleep tracking performed unnervingly well.
We've been pretty critical of Garmin's sleep tracking overall - even recently, in our Garmin Marq (Gen 2) review - with devices routinely not logging correct times in bed, and often registering minimal awake time or deep sleep.
The knock-on of this crappy sleep data, of course, is that features like Training Readiness and Body Battery then suffer.
But something appears to have changed with the FR265.
And while we won't get too excited about the specific sleep stage analysis, given that this data is impossible to verify without us heading into a proper sleep lab, is notable that the FR265 actually managed to match up with the likes of Whoop and Oura. That's not something we've really seen before from a Garmin.
We didn't have one single time-in-bed estimate that was skewed during our time with the FR265, and the estimates were all in healthy ranges when compared to those other top trackers, as shown above.
Garmin may be marketing the FR265 as a 'running smartwatch', but don't go thinking it's done enough to truly earn that title.
It certainly does boast some smart features, but the broad experience is pretty half-baked when compared to something like the Apple Watch or even a Wear OS watch.
There's definitely enough for it to get by, though. Notifications are rich, customizable and now much more attractive with the move over to AMOLED, and offline music continues to be both a breeze to use and pretty widely supported (even if Apple Music is still scarce).
We can't say that Garmin's Connect IQ store is really buzzing with polished apps outside of a couple of big-name hitters, however, and support for things like Garmin Pay (at least here in the UK) is pretty laughable considering how many years it's been available.
While they're not particularly features we would even notice to be present or not, we do also know that there's a pocket of Garmin users who really crave a speaker, microphone or smart assistant support. None of those are here, either.
The truth is that smart features just aren't the FR265's forte. And, to be honest, that's fine - we don't really believe anybody is buying any Forerunner device for the smartwatch features, after all.
When rumblings first began regarding an AMOLED Forerunner, the intrigue immediately began about whether Garmin could sustain adequate battery levels.
Following the trail other Garmin AMOLED watches blazed, however, the FR265 is able to give you extensive battery life even when you demand a lot from the settings.
For our test, we largely had the FR265 set up with the always-on display turned on, default brightness, blood oxygen monitoring during sleep tracking and the screen turned off between 22:00 - 07:00.
Then there were our workout-specific settings. On average, we used the SatIQ GPS for around an hour each day, and often logged two hours of total workout time. During about half of these sessions, we used the FR265 to stream music from Spotify, while screen brightness was always maxed out.
Using these quite specific settings - but ones we think are fairly typical of most users - we found that the battery drained around 25% per day, putting total capacity at just over four days.
This is much more than we've found in any other comparable device and settings setup, such as the Apple Watch Ultra, even if it is still less than the five days Garmin touts in a comparable setup.
Plus, when we did turn the always-on display off during regular use, it effectively doubled its cycle. Instead of 25%, we found only around 10-15% to be used.
For reference, an hour-long, GPS-tracked run also only depleted the battery by 5%, with this stretching to 12% in a separate hour-long run with music streaming.
The upshot is that there are tons and tons of options at your disposal - and we think you can definitely get a couple of weeks if you were pretty conservative. And, as we say, even if you're not, it's still better than anything else with these display specs and features.
It doesn't compare with the roughly two-week battery life you'd get with a Forerunner featuring a MIP display, which is technically always-on by default, but we really think the trade-off is worth it.
How we test